Lawmakers resume session amid social-distancing rules

By: - June 3, 2020 3:56 pm

Rep. Ras Smith, D-Waterloo, left, wears a face shield as he speaks to Rep. Timi Brown-Powers, D-Waterloo. (Photo by Kathie Obradovich/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Iowa lawmakers returned Wednesday to restart their 2020 legislative session, which was interrupted in mid-March by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In many ways, legislators picked up where they left off.  Conversations about bills resumed as lawmakers rushed to meet a revised deadline for committee action on policy bills.

A forehead thermometer is used to check the temperatures of Capitol visitors. (Photo by Jim Obradovich for Iowa Capital Dispatch)

But there were noticeable differences as well. For members of the public, temperatures were checked at the doors. Containers of hand sanitizer have appeared throughout the building. Public spaces in the Capitol were relatively quiet.

“It’s different. It’s like coming into the Capitol and OK, everybody’s gone, where are they at?” Sen. Michael Breitbach, R-Strawberry Point, said.

“It feels weird being back,” said Rep. Norlin Mommsen, R-DeWitt. “I was getting used to being home,” he said with a laugh. “I kind of feel almost similar to my first day again. It’s that little apprehension or anxiety.”

Mommsen said he believes fellow lawmakers and others are “keeping their distance like they’re supposed to.”

Legislators have been asked to vacate their desks when the full chamber is not in session. Committee meetings are taking place on the floor of the House and Senate so social distancing can occur and meetings can be livestreamed. Lawmakers’ clerks did not return. There are no pages and many of the lobbyists have stayed away.

Capitol visitors watch a subcommittee meeting on video as social-distancing rules prevent public attendance of some proceedings. (Photo by Jim Obradovich for Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Sen. Rob Hogg also stayed away, remaining at his home in Cedar Rapids. Hogg, a Democrat, said he wanted to reduce his exposure to COVID-19, and give his fellow lawmakers more space.

“I have heard second-hand that there are some Republican legislators and maybe some members of the people who are being pretty cavalier about their personal practices and maybe spreading it,” he said. “… That’s just irresponsible and it endangers not just legislators but staff and the public as well.”

Face masks were available at the doors for anyone who wanted one. Most Democratic lawmakers wore face masks and some even added clear face shields. Most of the Republican lawmakers went without a mask and some also eschewed the six-foot social distancing guidelines in their conversations with fellow lawmakers and staff.

Hogg said his decision as to when he’ll return will be made on a day-to-day basis.

State Rep. Jeff Shipley, R-Birmingham, railed on the Capitol steps against government-imposed restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the virus. He suggested the Iowa Department of Public Health be abolished for infringing on American freedoms.

“If there are some institutions that are disrespecting human dignity, they gotta go. Speaking of altering and abolishing, I was reading the code section for the Department of Public Health,” Shipley said. “Oh, my goodness. How have we let this happen where we have just resigned all responsibility to these unelected bureaucrats, these self-congratulatory scientists.”

He added, “This virus isn’t even killing anybody.”

Shipley was speaking at a rally outside the Capitol sponsored by Informed Choice Iowa, a group that opposes vaccination requirements for infectious diseases. Iowa Starting Line posted a video of the speech.

As of midday Wednesday, 569 Iowans with COVID-19 had died and about 108,000 have died in the United States.

Members of the public were being allowed into the Capitol, although tours are suspended.  Video screens were set up for people to watch House subcommittee meetings and public comments were being accepted on the Legislature’s website.


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